Talking to my family about teaching

The great thing about teaching is that everyone has an opinion on it; the worst thing about teaching is that everyone has an opinion on it.

Before I’d even started teaching, my extended family regaled me with stories of their best and worst teachers and doled out advice about behaviour management strategies, dealing with angry parents and reading aloud to children, as if they were veteran teachers who’d stepped out of the classroom or the conference they were leading purely for my benefit.

Twitter has been set alight this week by an article in the Guardian which likened silent corridors to the gulag. As a teacher who works in a ‘challenging’ school, I couldn’t put my thoughts better than did this teacher. As a teacher whose classroom is at the intersection of two noisy corridors, a silent corridors policy is music to my ears: it means no one in my class is distracted, it means I don’t have to split myself in two in order to manage behaviour both within and outside my classroom – it means respect for teaching and learning, which, afterall, is the purpose of school.

I am currently on holiday with my family and I thought I’d share this ludicrous article with them. None of them are teachers; none of them have stepped foot in a school since they graduated themselves. And yet, they have such strong opinions. At the mere mention of ‘silent corridors’, a look of horror plastered itself across their faces. Silence? What about expression? What about fun? What about freedom? (This from someone who deplores the ‘freedom’ narrative in all other contexts).

What I’ve realised over the last three years, is that these liberal views, epitomised through progressive education, are still the norm. In an ideal world, children could learn on their own terms, through exploration, talk and discovery. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just trust children to walk down corridors respectfully and quietly without ever having to teach them what this looks like? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put 30 teenagers in a room and simply facilitate their learning? The reality is different and these views betray an ignorance around inequality of educational outcomes and cognitive psychology:

1. Inequality of educational outcomes

In the UK, children’s success educationally and generally is determined by their socio-economic background. This is a travesty and explains the need for high expectations in schools. The role of education is to break the privilege-success cycle and that’s only possible if we are 100% consciously commmitted to the goal. That’s why I can’t take seriously the complaints of silent corridor policies or lack of ‘fun’ at school – the purpose of school is not for children to have unfettered freedom, but to equip them with the knowledge and skills which will allow them to realise their dreams. Being able to talk in a corridor is not conducive to that, but fostering self-discipline and a respect for institutions and learning may be. As a side note, private schools operate these expectations – are they like gulags?

2. Cognitive psychology

Education is a vast beast and the author of the Guardian article claims to be able to prove causation (when she claims to know what has caused improvement in exam results at Ninestiles school). However, education experts such as Dylan William and John Hattie struggle to do so, so it is unlikely in the extreme that a columnist with no expertise in education can. Nevertheless, in this landscape of uncertainty, direct instruction (meaning traditional teaching) recently made headlines: 50 years of educational research has shown that progressive, student-led learning does not lead to improved outcomes to the same extent as traditional teaching does. Even former die-hard progressives are turning away from their so-called liberal ideals.

This finding can be explained by research into memory and cognitive load. This is not the place to expand on this but if you’re interested, I recommend reading Daisy Christodolou, Daniel Willingham and listening to Craig Barton’s fascinating podcast: Mr Barton Maths.

In a nutshell, if the children we teach are going to succeed, they are going to have to work that bit harder than their middle class counterparts. Every minute that they spend focused on something other than learning is an obstacle to that goal. More than that, the time it takes to recover from that distraction impacts not only those students, but also on their classmates and teachers. Every interaction in school has a cooling time. Gossiping between lessons stops children absorbing what they’ve learned; it creates noise (thus requiring teachers to intervene); it requires those students in question to, upon entering their new classroom, forget the conversation and engage their learning brains. Is the cognitive lag caused by such trivial conversations worth it?

As research has shown, we are not capable of multitasking; we are merely task switching.The amount of cognitive effort it takes to switch from learning to gossip and back to learning is huge, and it may not even happen at all. What if your friend reveals something earth shattering just before maths? Will you be able to focus on algebra the second you sit down? Don’t we want learning to always be the easiest choice for our children? These so called ‘cruel and mean-spirited’ policies allow children to make the right choice, all the time. Is it more cruel to insist on silence in 5 minute transitions or to focus not on learning, but on fun or freedom, to the long term detriment of our children, perpetuating the deprivation cycle that exists?

Our pupils and teachers literally do not have the time to waste on gossip and picking up its pieces. It may be fun and necessary, but children have plenty of time to gossip – at lunch, break, on the way to and from school and at home. While children are at school in learning mode, is it too much to ask that we prioritise learning?

Still, these views are attractive and I once shared them. In my teacher training, our tutor told us of a class who walked everywhere in silence. I was critical: were those children happy? Were they fulfilled? Did they feel loved?

Now, I don’t know about that individual teacher or that individual class. But after three years of teaching and this year inheriting a year group where chaos ruled, I believe enforcing those kind of rules allows children to feel loved. It’s like with permissive parenting – parents think they’re being kind but children just feel abandoned. Children in classes where the teacher is not in control aren’t better off.

But it’s hard to come to that conclusion if you’ve haven’t been a teacher, charged with the well-being of thirty children.

The best thing about teaching is that everyone has an opinion on it. The worst thing about teaching is that everyone thinks their opinion is just as valid as yours- the professional’s. We all went to school, right? Well, we’ve all lived in buildings but I think we would all agree that this doesn’t give us the knowledge and experience of a builder.

Teaching is wonderful and talking about it is too – but it would be even more wonderful if teachers were more trusted and their opinions valued.

2 thoughts on “Talking to my family about teaching

  1. This was a fantastic read. It should be printed out for staffrooms everywhere! Second to last paragraph is perfect and what you say earlier about wanting learning to always be the easiest choice really resonates.


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